I am an anthropological archaeologist interested in how people make technological decisions. Using a transdisciplinary and experimental approach in the study of prehistoric ceramics I explore how past people perceived and utilized their landscape, how they related with others in their communities as they learned the ‘proper’ ways to make and use pots, and how they built a sense of self – an identity – as valuable members of their local and broader communities. 

My fieldwork has combined archaeological excavations, raw materials surveys, and experimental projects in Hungary and Italy to examine technological traditions through time and space. 

My laboratory work integrates a wide range of analytical techniques from geology, materials science and nuclear chemistry, such as petrographic analysis, X-Ray Diffraction (XRD), Instrumental Neutron Activation Analysis (INAA), and Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM), to examine in detail individual decisions made throughout the complete ceramic operational sequence, from the selection of raw materials, to the forming, finishing, firing, and use of pots. I am also embarking on a collaborative project that aims to test and refine ceramic rehydroxylation dating.



My analysis of two Bronze Age villages (2700-1650 BC) in SW Hungary, Kiszombor-Új-Élet and Klárafalva-Hajdova, showed that social factors, related to the symbolic properties of raw materials, to deeply engrained ideas about how a ‘proper’ pot should be made, and to the social networks of apprenticeship in which individual potters belong, play a central role in ceramic technological decision-making.  (Michelaki et al., 2002; Michelaki, 2006). Understanding that pots are not the result of compromises among environmental, functional and mechanical constraints, but are instead tied intimately to historically specific social choices was a new idea, challenging the consensus view that technology was bereft of sociality. Moreover, it provided a roadmap for how to reconstruct the interplay between technology and social life in the archaeological record. In my Cambridge Archaeological Journal paper (Michelaki, 2008) I went further to argue that technological processes are not passive recipients of social information, but rather active creators of social networks. It is the process of bringing pots into being in a particular way, in a particular social, spatial, and historical context that makes you who you are, that molds your identity.

Ceramics are not the objectified and immutable memory of aesthetic and technical standards of a community. They actively engage people in social acts that teach them how to be members of their communities and become themselves. They engage them in acts of learning to make ‘proper’ pots, of using pots ‘appropriately’ to cook, of offering the ‘right’ pots to their dead, etc. Thus, it is critical to understand how long-term traditions that transcend generations affect this dynamic human-material interaction. 


With support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada in 2007, I initiated an innovative project that explores precisely the role of long-term tradition in the development of technological systems. As part of a multinational and transdisciplinary project that explores the history of human habitation in the region of Bova Marina, in Calabria, SW Italy, my work focuses on the ceramics from five archaeological sites, dating from the Neolithic (6th mill. BC) to the Classical Greek period (4th cent. BC). Given that the sites lie less that 1km apart from each other, their inhabitants must have had access to the same types of resources. This makes the region of Bova Marina an ideal setting for testing ideas about the social nature of technology.

My project combines a systematic raw materials survey with experimental projects in the field and in the laboratory to explore the distribution of resources on the Calabrian landscape and the mineralogical and physico-chemical properties of available raw materials. Against this systematic and deep understanding of the local materials I study the mineralogy, chemistry and physical structure of the archaeological ceramics, combining petrography, XRD, INAA and SEM. With these data I reconstruct the complete ceramic production sequence within each site and time period and assess the extent to which recipes, manufacturing techniques, etc., persisted or changed across time. The analysis of the geological clays has been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science (Michelaki et al., 2012). We are currently preparing the Neolithic material for publication (Robb and Michelaki, 2012; Michelaki et al., in prep.; Michelaki and Robb, in prep.). Analyses of the Bronze Age and Classical material continue and will be completed within the next two years. Independent archaeological data suggest that, during the Late Neolithic, the Early and Late Bronze Ages, and the Greek period, southern Italian communities were re-organized significantly. The types, sizes and distributions of their settlements changed. So did their burial customs, their material culture and their connections with the broader Mediterranean world. Our goal is to test whether ceramic technologies persisted despite social re-organizations. Doing so will allow us to evaluate whether long-term traditions were deeply engrained and powerful factors guiding technological decision-making.


The co-existence of different ceramic technological traditions in the same community and what it implies about the social relations of the people who were practicing them has fascinated me for a long time (Were they different people: colonizers, captives, immigrants vs indigenous villagers? Were they the same people producing for different audiences or social settings?). Nowhere could such questions be better explored than in the context of the Neutral Iroquoian communities of the 16th to 17th century, when shell-tempered ceramics make their appearance within the typical Iroquoian grit-tempered ceramic assemblages. Upon the completion of my work in Calabria, I see a great opportunity to apply my theoretical and methodological approach in the examination of Iroquoian ceramic technology. While I learn about Iroquoian communities, I have already supervised an MA thesis on ceramic production in Iroquoian villages, organized a session focused on current Iroquoian ceramic research at the Canadian Archaeological Association meetings (2008), published a paper on Iroquoian ceramics in the Canadian Journal of Archaeology (Michelaki, 2007) and provided a number of independent reading courses to graduate students at McMaster University and ASU. 



As I often rely heavily on compositional data to explore questions of provenance and technology - and by extension, trade/exchange, social networks, and identity – I struggle to comprehend and acknowledge the factors that can affect the interpretation of such data. In an attempt to initiate a dialogue with the archaeological community on how to format, analyze, and interpret archaeometric data I have recently engaged in a series of re-assessments of published archaeometric data:

2013          Reassessment of elemental concentration data of sediments from the western delta of the Nile River. Open Journal of Archaeometry, 1: 6-9. (K. Michelaki and R.G.V. Hancock).

2013           On establishing ceramic chemical groups: exploring the influence of data analysis methods and the role of the elements chosen in analysis. Open Journal of Archaeometry, 1: 1-5. (K. Michelaki, R.G.V. Hancock and M. Hughes).

2013              17th century Huron Village Life: Insights from the Copper-based Metals of the Ball site, Southern Ontario, CanadaJournal of Archaeological Science 39 (2): 234-246. (K. Michelaki, R.G.V. Hancock, G. Warrick, and D.H. Knight).

2011               Chemistry Versus Data Dispersion: Is There a Better Way to Assess and Interpret Archaeometrical Data? Archaeometry 53(6): 1259-1279. (K. Michelaki and R.G.V. Hancock). 


As part of a collaborative NSF funded project, I have been working on a project that aims to test and refine ceramic rehydroxylation dating. Our team includes:

          Tim J. Scarlett and Jaroslaw Drelich, Michigan Technological University

          Kostalena Michelaki, Arizona State University

          Carl P. Lipo and Hector Neff, California State University, Long Beach

          Murray A. Moinester, Tel Aviv University

The UK Team that did the original foundational work and is now also involved in a collaborative RHX validation study, funded by the NERC, includes Moira Wilson and Margaret Carter (Manchester University), Andrea Hamilton and Chris Hall (Edinburgh University), and Cathy Batt (Bradford University). Drs. Wilson, Carter, and Hamilton are the key scholars connecting our collaborative experiments with the existing UK Team. (for more detail on this project, see CURRENT PROJECTS above).

© Dr. Kostalena Michelaki 2012